Attorney says woman forgot her infant was in car after dropping - ABC 33/40 - Birmingham News, Weather, Sports

Attorney says woman forgot her infant was in car after dropping daughters off at school

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ANNISTON - AL -

The attorney for an Anniston woman said manslaughter is an inappropriate charge after she accidentally left her four-month-old son in the car while she worked.

Jim Sturdivant said Army Sergeant First Class Katherine Papke was a busy single mother who was adjusting to returning from maternity leave with a new baby and trying to get on a new schedule as her daughters started school.

Papke's infant son, Bennett Owen "Bo" Smith died Friday after several hours sitting inside his mother's parked minivan at the Fort McClellan Readiness Center.  Anniston officers took Papke to the police station after doctors pronounced Bo dead, and charged her Friday evening with manslaughter and leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle.  Both charges are felonies.

"She made a horrible mistake and she will live with it for the rest of her life.  She's totally devastated and she's doing all she can just to make the arrangements for the child's funeral," Sturdivant said.

Papke's attorney said his client is not guilty, and Sturdivant contacted ABC 33/40 Tuesday to provide facts after Anniston police released what he called "extremely incomplete" information about Papke and the death of her son.

Papke is in her fifteenth year with the Army, and served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.  Sturdivant said Papke recently finished maternity leave and returned to work at the Fort McClellan Readiness Center.  Her daughters, ages 7 and 8, started school last Wednesday at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Anniston on the old Fort McClellan property.

Sturdivant said Papke is trying to lose some of her pregnancy weight to meet military requirements, and to help with that, she walked her daughters to school Wednesday and Thursday with her son in tow.  She drove them to school for the first time Friday.  Bo's daycare center is about one-half mile from the Readiness Center.

"Instead of turning left into the daycare center--Bo was asleep--she just kept going and went on to her duty station.  She got out of the vehicle in her uniform, and went into the building to do her work as an Army non-commissioned officer," Sturdivant said.

"At approximately 2 o'clock, she went outside, and that's when she realized her mistake.  She was the person who called 911.  She was the person who discovered the child's body," he said.

"For whatever reason at the [Anniston Police Department] press conference yesterday, I don't think that point was made clear.   It seemed almost the use of a passive voice.  '911 was called.  The child's body was discovered,' as if it was discovered by some random person.  In fact, it was this mother who discovered the child."

Sturdivant said prosecutors acted hastily in charging Papke with manslaughter on the very same day her son died.

"For [Anniston police] to wait until the autopsy reports come back and release more information is all well and good, but I would have thought it might have been fairer to wait on the charging decision as well," he said.

Sturdivant said about 30 children die in the United States each year after being left alone in vehicles.  He said only about half of those cases involve criminal charges, and it is at the discretion of district attorneys in different jurisdictions.  Sturdivant pointed to the recent case in Homewood where another woman left her child in the car while at work, but has not been charged.

"It's sad to me that what I think is a public health issue is being treated as a criminal justice or law enforcement issue," he said.

"This situation is a tragedy and I think it's being compounded by ruining my client's future with the Army and in general by trying to label her as a felon. When in fact this was a simple honest mistake and it could happen to anybody."

Sturdivant said he expects the charge of Leaving a Child Unattended in a Motor Vehicle will be thrown out because it is not applicable in this case.  He said the new statute that went into effect August 1 applies to paid workers providing care for children or the elderly.  Sturdivant said that does not apply to relatives who forget their young family members in a vehicle.

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